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A lot has changed in the smartphone game in the six months since Microsoft launched its Windows Phone 7 platform. Many of the major manufacturers have launched products with dual-core processors, and many other upcoming handsets feature HDMI connectivity and DLNA media sharing. We knew Microsoft had some work to do with its OS after the launch, with several key features to add before it fell too far behind, but has it done enough so that phones like the HD7 remain competitive?
As with several of its competitors, HTC has settled recently on a design profile that is instantly recognisable as an HTC product. The HD7 follows in these footsteps, offering its 4.3-inch display within the now-familiar black bezel with a soft-touch matte grey battery cover behind it. Side-by-side with its other WP7 releases, the Mozart and the Trophy, the HD7 is much the same aesthetically, only bigger.
This large screen display is a fitting centrepiece, with nice deep blacks and rich, vivid colours on show. HTC positions the 3.5mm headphone socket on the rear of the base of the handset, which is handy for game players, and has the usual array of volume keys with the camera shutter on the right hand side. Interestingly, HTC has included forward-facing speaker grilles at both the top and bottom of the screen and a kickstand on the back, so that when you are watching movies you have the experience of a mini flat panel TV.
The HD7's kickstand is a pretty handy feature.
All in all, HTC does a nice job of delivering the big screen experience without weighing the phone down or making it uncomfortably heavy. At 162-grams, the HD7 is still extremely portable, and its 11.2mm thickness is only marginally wider than the thinnest phones in market, though its curved back makes it seem a little chunkier.
Though tech pundits maintain a laundry list of missing features in Windows Phone — including the team here at CNET — no one can fault the performance of the system and the user experience this offers. This is one of the fastest, slickest mobile platforms available. It is also one of the simplest to use, making it an excellent choice for first-time smartphone shoppers.
Microsoft call this its Metro UI, with shortcut tiles on the front-facing homescreen and a list of all of the installed applications accessible with a horizontal swipe on the screen from right-to-left. The same gesture applies in the core applications; swiping right-to-left in the "People" menu takes you from your address book to your friends' latest Facebook updates, for example.
All phone settings and limited customisation options can be found under a single Settings menu. This is great for those who are new to the system as you won't need to spend hours setting the phone up the way you want it. There is a lot of the fine-tuning that we expect in Android smartphones that simply isn't available in Windows Phone, but for some people this will be a plus and not a minus.
As we mentioned earlier, the showstopper here is the 4.3-inch LCD, but unfortunately this killer feature isn't supported by killer pre-installed apps to make the most of it. The media player supports H.264 MP4 files, so any other files you have will need to be transcoded using the Zune media manager, something that takes time with larger files.
Speaking of larger files, Microsoft's system still allows no user access to the HD7's 16GB internal storage. You can transfer music, videos, photos and documents to the handset via Zune, but you can't dump any old string of data on the storage to transport it from home to the office, for example. There's also no microSD card slot, so those looking for more than 16GB of storage will have to look elsewhere.
The integrated Internet Explorer browser is good for regular web surfing with decent load times and rendering of page elements. It is a watered-down web experience, however, with no Flash support and no integrated video streaming tool for sites like YouTube. Instead you're redirected to a Marketplace download and forced to switch between the browser and the player — a task made more difficult on a system without multitasking. It's also worth noting that there is no internet tethering option, so you can't share your 3G with any other devices.
On the plus side, the HD7's 5-megapixel camera takes lovely photos. Our test pics all look great played back on the handset, though the focus is a tad soft for photos you might be thinking of enlarging. The colour reproduction is quite vivid, capable of turning Sydney at night into a Tokyo-like neon metropolis, which some people might not like.
If you remember the launch activity around Windows Phone 7 then you'll be familiar with Microsoft's strict edict to manufacturers about which hardware components must be used in a WP7 handset. The HTC HD7 meets this water mark, with a 1GHz processor and 576 RAM, and delivers performance on-par with the excellent standard we've seen from this range previously. Menu scrolling and application switching is smooth and responsive; at no time during our review did we see any lag spikes or animation stutters.
Battery life wasn't so great, however, with the enormous display chewing through the juice faster than with any of the other WP7 handsets we've seen. This statistic reinforces our other observations, suggesting that the HD7 is best suited to someone who wants an easy-to-use smartphone with great calling, messaging and email, but also someone who is unlikely to fiddle with their phone too much. The web browsing is decent and there are some excellent games on the Windows Marketplace to download and play, but you'll need to remember to charge your phone at school or work if you intend to do too much of either on the HD7.
So is Windows Phone 7 complete enough to maintain competition? People coming to WP7 from other smartphone platforms will spot its weaknesses immediately, even those coming from obsolete versions of Windows Mobile. Microsoft's locked-down OS will frustrate seasoned smartphone users looking for features like media sharing and internet tethering, but its simplicity will also delight many who are looking for a way to manage their online lives and who don't want or need for this process to be too complex. HTC's HD7 is an excellent example of a Windows Phone handset, and would be a great choice for anyone who usage matches its somewhat simple feature set.